Bollywood in Britain

Tales of being British, Pakistani & female in Bradford, set against classic Bollywood

1 Bradford Pakeezah and Me

This isn’t a blog about Bollywood films; it’s a blog about the history of Bollywood’s relationship with Britain. I won’t be reviewing the latest films. I’m hoping to uncover the behind-the-scenes stories which have helped to make Bollywood films so popular in Britain today.

Bollywood films have been shown in Britain since at least the 1950s when South Asian migrant mill workers in cities like Bradford and Coventry sought entertainment on their day off. Asian entrepreneurs began to hire cinemas to show Bollywood movies on Sunday afternoons. Demand was so high that some even bought cinemas and established Indian film societies. British locations have featured in Indian films for decades, with the rolling landscape of the Lake District and Scottish castles acting as ‘exotic’ backdrops for numerous song and dance sequences. Britain featuring as part of the storyline is a relatively recent phenomenon. I’ve noted mounting interest in Indian films among my English friends. There was a time when my mates would consider watching a subtitled French film as a valuable cultural experience, yet Bollywood was strictly off limits. I sensed a shift after Shilpa Shetty’s run in with Jade Goody on Big Brother at the beginning of 2007. There was more mainstream exposure for Bollywood later the same year when Yorkshire hosted the IIFA Awards (Bollywood Oscars). Now we’ve reached the stage where credible Kylie has starred in a Bollywood song and dance sequence (‘Chiggy Whiggy’, Blue, D’Souza, 2009).

So here’s what I’ve got in mind. I want to talk to people who’ve been involved in bringing Bollywood to Britain. I want to track down some of the pioneers that screened the first Indian films in this country. I want to find out how the Bollywood Oscars ended up being held in Yorkshire. I’ve heard the offer of a friendly match at Headingley (Indians love cricket!) sealed it for the organisers, but is this really true? Another story I want to check is that Andrew Lloyd Webber apparently had a habit of watching Bollywood music channels with the volume turned down. The story goes that he was inspired to work with composer A R Rehman on a Bollywood style musical (Bombay Dreams, 2002) after seeing a clip of ‘Chaiyya Chaiyya’, which features a woman dancing on the roof of a moving train with Shahrukh Khan (Dil Se, Ratnam, 1998).

I want to share my love of Bollywood films, especially the old classics, and make them accessible to Bollywood beginners. So if you’ve never seen an Indian film, this blog might sway you, and may even help you decide which films to watch. I’m also hoping this blog will help me to think about my own relationship with Bollywood, and the part these films have played in my life. I wasn’t raised on a pure Bollywood diet, but the increasing availability of Indian films in early 1980s Bradford certainly helped me to come to terms with my cultural identity. Let me explain.

I was born in Keighley (where the Railway Children was filmed) but we went to live in Pakistan when I was four. We moved back in 1977 when I was nine. It was the year Elvis died, only I didn’t know who he was because my terms of reference were based on my convent schooling in Rawalpindi. We’d left behind a massive extended family – grandparents, uncles and cousins galore. We had no family in England. We settled on the mostly white Canterbury council estate in Bradford. Mum was now a single parent to three children, holding down three jobs in order to keep a roof over our heads. She worked as a machinist by day and took in piece-work from factories at night because the Brits wouldn’t recognise the teaching qualification she’d gained in Pakistan. Socialising involved changing two buses to visit an ‘aunt’ (usually one of mum’s work colleagues, and always Pakistani).  Our sole entertainment was watching TV. Mum got really excited on Sunday mornings when a (now iconic) magazine programme, Nayee Zindagi Naya Jeevan (New Way New Life), would be shown on the BBC. It featured a news update from back home, chat with a special guest and an entertainment slot. It was especially for Asians like us and best of all, it was in Urdu. It was probably the only programme we could watch without the fear of a mildly explicit scene making us squirm with discomfort!

School was difficult. I had little in common with my mostly white classmates – we hadn’t yet embraced the concept of multiculturalism! So they discussed boyfriends and mocked me because I wasn’t allowed to have one. They went to discos and parties but I wasn’t allowed to. They went into town on a Saturday afternoon while my mum escorted me and my siblings to the library. Eid was a bit of a non-event really. We got a day off school but we’d be all dressed up with nowhere to go. We didn’t celebrate Christmas although I began fabricating a list of presents from Santa, to make me sound normal in class. Nowadays, we Pakistanis in Bradford seem to have developed a cockiness that has even earned us a degree of notoriety. Back then, we still walked around apologising for being different. If they weren’t calling me “garlic breath” in the school canteen, then my classmates would be sharing a particular joke with me in the playground. It was based on a TV ad for a popular mint with a hole in the centre: “What’s the difference between a Paki and a Polo?” And the punch line went: “People like Polo!”

I think it was in the early 80s that Channel 4 began to screen a Bollywood season, showing an Indian film around 2am on a Friday or a Saturday night. I was in my early teens. I would religiously record the films on our VCR so I could play them back over and over again. Mostly the films were classics I think, many black and white, with traditional tales of romance. And even if they were a bit racy, at least they were doing it all in our mother tongue which somehow made it more acceptable. I didn’t even know what a courtesan was when I first watched Pakeezah (Pure of Heart, Amrohi, 1971). I was mesmerised by the bewitching Meena Kumari performing ‘Inhi Logon Ne’ in a magnificent red costume, so the notion of her singing about losing her honour whilst dancing in the courtesan quarters for prospective clients, went completely over my head! To be fair, it was all done so poetically, in typical Bollywood style.

This was also the first time I actively listened to Bollywood music, usually just recording the songs off the TV manually, by holding a cassette recorder near the TV speakers. These songs felt special because they were in my language which I rarely got to speak outside our house. I suppose I sought refuge in those early Bollywood classics like Pakeezah and Taj Mahal (Sadiq, 1963). Whilst I knew the words to every Duran Duran song ever recorded, it was probably the first time I hummed or listened to a pop song that wasn’t in English. They infused in me a sense of pride, and a sense of belonging. They made me feel that our language, our music, our clothes, and our culture were worthy of appreciation.

Mum had watched some of the older films and heard the songs when she was growing up in Pakistan, so they evoked a sense of history that we yearned for. Our new life in Bradford meant there was no history of mum around us; no pictures or mementoes of her life before marriage. We’d arrived in England with our clothes bundled in a few suitcases and not much else. Christian Housing Aid had kindly sent a truck to furnish our council home. Now, everywhere we went was new, as were our relationships, so there was no link to mum’s past. In a sense, classic Bollywood movies helped to bridge that gap. I remember those films gave mum some scarce moments of relaxation on the sofa. Mum would translate for us if the language proved difficult, or she would explain if we couldn’t follow the plot – which was usually a complicated love triangle. She would reminisce about her father’s fondness for music. He was a clerk in the British Indian Army when mum was a little girl. This was around 1945 before mum was even ten years old. Her father brought back a gramophone from one of his postings. Every time he returned to the village on vacation, he’d be clutching the latest records – qawwalis, naats (religious songs) as well as filmi songs. When the family slept on the roof on hot summer nights, he would ceremoniously set up the gramophone on a table on the rooftop, laying out a table cloth underneath. The sound of music travelled far, and attracted villagers to congregate on the charpois (beds) laid out on the roof. There they would sit and marvel at this new contraption. Years later, when mum started college in Rawalpindi, trips to the cinema were endorsed as long as she was up to date with her studies and prayers. Mum’s favourite films featured the classic pairings of Dilip Kumar and Noor Jehan, or Raj Kapoor and Nargis. Looking back, reconnecting with those films in 1980s Britain probably offered mum a rare distraction. More importantly, they gave all of us a valuable link to her childhood in Pakistan.


21 Responses

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  1. Hi Irna, I have finally had the time to read your blog and have to say how much I enjoyed it. We grew up only a few hundred yards apart it seems (I lived just off Park Road but spent a lot of my time in and around Horton Park) and both came from single parent families. But your account of your childhood and the clever link with Bollywood as a holding form makes for a fascinating insight into the parallel lives we led in Bradford in the 70s and 80s. Thank you for writing it, and I look forward to reading more. Regards D


    11/07/2011 at 1:44 am

  2. I really enjoyed reading your blog Irna Baji, especially the first post. Couldn’t stop reading after the fist paragraph. You’ve put everything down so simply, I love the main idea and how you’ve woven your personal experiences in to it. Parts of it really moved me, and I also learnt many new things about Indian Cinema, eventhough I thought I knew all there was to know about it :). I took a printout of your blog and gave it to Ami, I knew this is the kind of thing she’ll really enjoy, and she loved it too. Waiting for more posts, keep them coming ! I hope you write more about your childhood and family history, I loved that part.

    Mariam Farrukh

    04/03/2011 at 12:51 pm

    • Thanks so much for your lovely feedback Mariam, and for taking the time to feedback in the first place! I’m so pleased that your mum enjoyed the blog – I’ve been printing out and doing the same with my mum.

      The stuff about family history just seems to be emerging organically. I was telling ami jan about Rolf Harris singing me that Raj Kapoor song, so she started telling me about Baba Jee Khan in Bombay and how he was a fan of Prithviraj. Those are also my favourite parts – first listening to ami recount stories about her childhood and then getting them down on paper. You don’t imagine your mums to ever have had a life of their own, a carefree life I mean, where they indulged in music the way we take for granted today!

      I’m glad you found it moving too. Each time I recall my nani’s ode about the River Ravi, it makes my heart wrench.


      05/03/2011 at 7:56 am

  3. Loving it. More please! x

    Peg Alexander

    26/01/2011 at 3:56 pm

  4. I have really enjoyed reading your blog – all the more powerful for describing your childhood and how you came to love the films and embrace your culteral heritage. Really looking forward to the next chapter. Don’t leave it too long!

    Tracy Craggs

    12/01/2011 at 10:04 am

  5. Was also going to say that I recall ‘Nai Zindagi Naya Jeevan’, Irna. I even found myself trying to find music clips from it on Youtube not long ago.


    11/01/2011 at 5:37 pm

  6. hi Irna

    so good to hear from you – a wonderfully evocative article, beautifully written…it’s really interesting to see the present as the future of the past, if that isn’t too dumb…

    this is what you have made me think about:

    the past (ie. my childhood) was a period of hope and optimism, of a world opening up so many exciting possibilities – I genuinely remember being fascinated as a small child by Nai Zindagi Naya Jeevan, also by my near neighbour Farokh Engineer (Indian test cricketer) and especially his daughters, as well as later on by the great many European films shown late at night on TV (even though there were only 3 channels!), and I can still recall a sense of the truly exotic at my first sight of doner kebab meat grilling on a turning spit, when a Cypriot family took over our local chip shop

    the past was, however, also home to the most appalling racism, widely accepted, in every school playground and workplace

    and now? after all the years of multiculturalism and globalisation, I have over 100 TV channels but everything is in English! we see only British and American life, almost entirely white, very rarely Asian (or even non-British European, or in a language which requires subtitles)…in fact a narrowing of the world view I had as a child!

    the BBC has deliberately reduced its coverage of international news by 25% in recent years (you can watch BBC World if you are interested in things outside of the UK), BBC Asian Network radio is to be cut…

    meanwhile Asians (Muslims) have become our bogeyman – we are only interested in people like ourselves, too lazy to cope with difference

    Shilpa Shetty and Slumdog Millionaire are as surprising in their impact, the ability to burst our monocultural bubble, as they would have been 30 years ago, rather than the norm…

    nowadays we live with images of Asians either as token representatives (eg. a family in Eastenders) or as terrorists

    all of the above is part of my cultural identity, my experience – it does not feel especially like progress

    in terms of intercultural relations, no doubt some things have improved, while others have got worse!

    Richard Shotton

    11/01/2011 at 3:52 pm

  7. Hi Irna,

    Thanks so much for sending me this. Your childhood memories are so vivid (and made me wince, too!) but so interesting. I turned up Chaiyya Chaiyya on my computer to inspire the rest of the office. (I have loved it ever since I was introduced to Bollywood films through a BFI exhibition we borrowed in the 90s.) I heard a programme about A.R. Rahman on Radio 4 where he said that LLoyd Webber had contacting him after watching that clip.

    Keep the blog going – and everyone else’s comments.

    Vanda Foster

    11/01/2011 at 3:00 pm

    • Vanda, was that the poster exhibition, Bollywood in Love? I curated that for BFI.


      11/01/2011 at 5:11 pm

  8. Hi Irna

    This is really interesting and very important to get memories from your Mother. My Mother died recently and even though I tried to ask her all the questions I thought I wanted to know years before she died, there are so many I’d still like to ask her. Have you read Saida Malik’s book, We are a Muslim please?
    What about putting some of this on ?
    Looking forward to reading more.

    Vicky Mitchell

    11/01/2011 at 2:06 pm

  9. Hi Irna,

    I really enjoyed reading this – it’s a great idea – like having a little conversation with you about your childhood. It did make me a little sad because I never really got to know anything about my parent’s lives before my brother and i came along. And now it’s too late. I wished I’d made more of an effort when they were around as I have little to tell my own daughter about her Bengali grandparents. I’m looking forward to reading the next instalment of your blog! x

    Shazna Burkinshaw

    11/01/2011 at 10:48 am

  10. Irna, this blog is fascinating. I loved reading it although some of the bits about your childhood and the prejudice suffered by the kids in your school made me wince. I look forward to the next instalment. Good luck!

    Sue Brick

    10/01/2011 at 8:35 pm

  11. Irna-ji! Namasteji! Adab!
    Fantastic concept you have here for your blog and I look forward to reading about Bollywood’s relationship with Britain. Added you to my shallow blog’s blogroll. Do you know, and/or check out fellow Brit’s blog:

    All the best!


    10/01/2011 at 5:01 pm

  12. Irna, thank you so much for this! Cannot wait to read the next one!

    Marta Bolognani

    10/01/2011 at 3:23 pm

  13. this is so exciting!! and its about time Irna !!


    10/01/2011 at 1:43 pm

  14. Hi Irna,

    What a lovely idea and a lot of it is very familiar ground for me too. My first 7 years in England were in Coventry and I remember going on sundays with the whole family to the two cinemas that screened Bollywood films. And for us as East African Asians it was a way of meeting all those other East African friends there but also to meet for the first time real Pakistanis (for us it was those who were actually from Pakistan unlike us ‘junglees’). And Bollywood connected us all culturally though our experiences and lifestyles were very different.
    Thank you for writing so eloquently about your relationship with Bollywood and I look forward to the next installment. Ruhi x

    Ruhi Hamid

    10/01/2011 at 12:05 pm

    • Thanks Ruhi. The Coventry cinema pioneers are on my list of people to talk to. Would be good to record your reminiscences too!


      10/01/2011 at 12:16 pm

  15. Excellent work, Irna. An interesting blend of social history with your own personal history, tied in with the films.



    10/01/2011 at 11:40 am

  16. What a lovely idea for a blog! I will comment properly when my brain is more awake.

    A friend and I are working on an oral history of Bollywood movie-watching around the world and collecting the stories at our podcast here: I hope we can entice you to participate! 🙂


    10/01/2011 at 1:28 am

    • Thanks Beth. Will check your podcast, and look forward to your comments.


      10/01/2011 at 9:04 am

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